One Saturday afternoon in May 2008, my best friend Kathy called me.
“I’m in hospice. I was hoping you’d come by.”
A half hour later I am sitting in Kathy’s backyard, sunlight streaming between the newly leafed trees and her husband Bob placing potted impatiens throughout the yard. I smile as Kathy thoughtfully directs her husband to rearrange the pots so she can see them better.
We nibble on lemon cake her mom made and I hold her hand, frail, bony and listless. What is left of Kathy is a cavity, a startling skeletal outline wrapped in an angora shall. I am ashamed sitting next to her, healthy, fifteen pounds overweight and a deadbeat friend who hadn’t called in weeks.
Twenty-seven years earlier we met the third day of seventh grade in gym class. It was a Friday morning and the all-girl class was required to wear a green and gold t-shirt with matching shorts and tube socks while our new school clothes were locked in cages in a dark, dank 1950s locker room.
The class was scary with tough girls like Tracy, Tammy and Cindy who already graduated from their training bras and filled out their short, shorts nicely. Their mothers allowed them to wear green eye shadow, roach clips of dangling feathers pinned to their hair and a permanent scowl that lasted through high school. Kathy and I practically clung to each other in search of some ally in our new middle school surroundings.
Kathy was “cool beans” as she liked to say, loved Friendly’s mint chocolate chip ice cream with marshmallow topping, was in love with Bono and everything U2, had a happy, broad smile and an awesome chuckle.
We were dorks, nice dorks, and we were sort of okay with that and frankly girls like Tracy, Tammy and Cindy would never relabel us as anything different. Kathy was a friendly face in a crowded hallway of adolescent angst.
No boyfriends, no dates, and always learned about the party the Monday after was our way of life. We choreographed synchronized swim club routines to Tears for Fears and Peter Gabriel, passed triangular folded notes with our loopy handwriting exclaiming how boring Algebra was, how cute Paul or Marty were and whether or not we wanted to sleep over that weekend.
When college arrived we disconnected for a bit. Different schools and schedules distanced us. Kathy had a new friend and roommate, some girl named Bobbie from Connecticut. I met Bobbie once and ruled her out after she referenced Kathy’s hair as being the color of “goat piss.”
“She’s awful Kath,” I remember telling her, “She’s not a good friend.”
Bobbie had so many frosted highlight’s I figured she’d be bald by thirty. This judgement made Kathy chuckle.
After college Kathy won a radio contest to see Bruce Hornsby and The Range at an outdoor concert in New London. The contest included a bus ride with some known radio personality with big long permed hair. While on the bus Kathy apologized, “I wasn’t much of a friend to you while in college.”
“What are you talking about? You were fine,” and frankly I was busy overcompensating for not getting into a good college by working, interning and running the college paper.
Bobbie was out of the picture, dropped out of college to be closer to her boyfriend and Kathy transferred to a different school and had joined the swim team, competing in Venezuela.
“You were right about Bobbie.”
As we sat on the bus, the post college blues showed on our slouched shoulders. Neither of us even liked Bruce Hornsby and the nineties only promised grunge music, a recession, Saddam Hussein, Lewinsky and bad fashion choices.
The two of us had many life touch points together where we shared our worries about careers, dreams, boyfriends, lack of boyfriends, and when will life really begin? Kathy had a degree in psychology and worked full time in the nutrition department at a hospital. She wore a hair net and served pureed food to sick patients. She hated the hospital smell that seeped into her pores and she would drive home in her red Mustang frustrated and waiting for the epiphany of what her life’s work would be.
When we vacationed to Aruba in 1992 her brothers and their friends wanted nothing to do with us so we created our own fun, hotel pool hopping to sample their swim up bars and secretly taking photos of us posing with the men of Aruba – all over the age of 60, pot bellied and nude. Kathy compiled the photos and turned it into a calendar and gave it to me as a keepsake. I still pull out the 1994 calendar from time to time. If only we knew how beautiful, thin and sexy we were back then.
When she met her husband, Kathy told me stories about how he’d shovel a path to her car and leave a rose on her cleared window shield on the snowy days when she had to work. Or how he’d stop by and bring her Chinese food as a work surprise.
“He sounds like a keeper to me.”
Little did she know that her choice in a husband was a steadfast, faithful man who was by her side in her unfortunate nightmare adventure battling carcinoma for a decade.
Kathy was a mother, and her two children were the reasons she lived with cancer as long as she did. I was with her when she learned the surgery to remove her gall bladder failed to eliminate the cyst which spread to her liver. It was malignant and inoperable. She invited me to join her on a trip to Boston where she was part of a special drug study to shrink the cancer. Doctors thought the drug could manage the cancer, keep it at bay to allow her a normal, long life. The deal she made with the doctors was to feel violently sick for three weeks in exchange for a year of feeling great and no medications.
“I’m sorry Kathy. I wanted this to go away for you,” I said to her in her backyard, distant hollering of kids as they pedaled past her house, birds whistling, spring blossoming as her body slowly shut down.
Kathy’s thin fingers brushed my remarks away, “You are my good friend.”
The medication Kathy was on lessened her pain and sadness. She was saying goodbye to her life, her family, her friends, and her future. There would be no kids’ graduations, proms or weddings. She would never enjoy the privilege of watching her children grow up. Her love of snapping photos of her kids would stop, no mementos of her epiphany to be a good mom.
She made lists for her husband of how she wanted him to raise their children and she made all the arrangements for her funeral, from picking the pink satin interior of her coffin to the grave site and obituary. She cried to me about her in laws moving down the street, “they are going to take over raising my kids,” she sobbed.
I tried to assure her that her parents, brothers and her husband would make sure that her children remembered her and honored her.
A few days after our final visit, her church held a prayer vigil for Kathy. A catechism drop out, I attended, sitting in the back and marveling at the number of friends Kathy had collected. Many faces were familiar, those girls with the scowls back in high school had found god, hands in the air, taking in as much of the holy spirit as they could catch. Kathy attended retreats and bible classes with them. These friends visited Kathy weekly while I was preoccupied with work, my toddler and house projects.
Kathy saw the good in others whereas I found the bad in others. Even Bobbie she would defend, “she had a tough childhood” or “she makes the best chocolate chip pancakes.”
A month later we were back at the church for her funeral. The coffin sat in front of the alter, shiny mahogany, her children small and confused in the front pew.
The organ played while I looked up at the ceiling, pushing back tears. I used to think the ceiling of the church, all long planks of wood looked like an upside down Noah’s arch.
A group of church friends of Kathy paraded up to the alter leaving pink roses on the coffin. Suddenly, Maria, a nice girl from our high school class stood in front of me and handed me a pink rose.
“C’mon,” she mouthed.
I shook my head no. This was Kathy’s prayer group, this was a prearranged ceremony, it wouldn’t be appropriate.
Maria insisted, grabbing my hand and giving a gentle tug.
I whispered, “No, it’s okay. I am not a part of this group.”
“Yes you are,” Maria assured me and we walked up to the coffin to place our roses.
I moved out of town several years ago and my sisters tell me Kathy’s kids are doing well and what a great dad Bob is. I see Christmas card photos of Kathy’s kids. They are beautiful and good and Kathy would be so proud. On my credenza in my office is a photo of the two of us at our high school graduation. It is a photo that puts things in perspective for me.
Just today, after a visit to my parents, I drove by her grave site with my son. Sea shells lay on top of the gray tombstone. She loved the beach and I thought of our day trips to Misquamicut, driving her mom crazy listening to Dead or Alive sing “You Spin Me Right Round” over and over on the way home.
At the base of the grave was a smooth stone with the engraving, “Always Remember.”
Kathy was a mother and ultimately a teacher. She taught me about bygones, trying not to sweat the small stuff, forgiving, and how friendship can transcend beyond sickness and death. Kathy taught me how to respect the passage of time that sneaks by so fast you might miss what matters.
I now walk down new hallways and there is no Kathy anywhere for me to give a knowing nod to or pass a text message complaining about the intense room parent gone wild. It’s me, a dork without a fellow dork trying to act like a grown up. I miss Kathy and wish that I had treasured the friendship when I had it.